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The New York Times had a wish list. It wanted coverage of the emerging human subcultures that young journalists can be so adept at spotting, and it wanted to report them in a way that was visually arresting and likely to thrive on social media as well as its own platforms.

Its solution was a remarkable project called Surfacing, which has generated features on subjects as diverse as a female “Roller Derby” team made up of members from indigenous peoples from around the world, and the Black Panther “cosplayers” who like to dress up in the outfits of characters from the recent Hollywood fantasy film.

But perhaps stranger than all of that is the fact that this editorial project from the world’s most famous newspaper title is underwritten by a snack brand, Véa, a trendy cracker made without artificial ingredients. It’s an experiment in the funding of quality journalism that could have major implications for the future of news, as publishers look to partnerships with brands to extend the operations of their newsrooms without ceding editorial control. Véa, and its manufacturer Mondelez, benefit merely from association with a great news brand.

'The credibility rub-off'

On a visit to London this week, the New York Times’s advertising chief, Sebastian Tomich, set out to The Drum why he thinks the Times’s newsroom represents an “untapped resource” for the publisher’s commercial operations. “We think there is a huge opportunity for marketers to work with us to bring something new to the world together that helps their brand and also provides something that our subscribers love,” he says.

Tomich cites as an example The Daily 360 project, which is sponsored by Samsung and uses that company’s camera equipment and the journalistic expertise of the New York Times to produce an immersive film every day. It has enabled 200 of the paper’s journalists to use the equipment and has generated films from 57 countries which have been viewed more than 100 million times.

“The story of our partnership and how we are working together can be just as valuable (to the client) as the partnership itself,” Tomich notes. “The fact that Samsung could market that our newsroom was using their cameras to make that 360 video and they could use the journalism created out of the partnership in some of their TV assets, that’s hugely valuable.” Samsung clearly agrees, having this month concluded a new partnership with The New York Times related to its new QLED televisions and their “Ambient Mode” feature, a state-of-the-art showcase for the paper’s journalism.

Tomich identifies many further potential partnerships as the publisher extends its coverage in business, technology and gender issues. “In the (political) environment at the moment, people really care about supporting journalism, and where their news is coming from. The Times plays such a leadership role in that space that I think there is an opportunity to connect it with marketers. It’s the credibility rub-off and the brand association.”

The New York Times is enjoying a resurgence, and Donald Trump’s repeated stigmatisation of the title as “the failing New York Times” has been a gift to the marketing team, energising its reader base and helping increase subscription revenues to more than $1bn in 2017. The company’s stock is at its highest level for more than a decade.

But it’s still operating in what Tomich admits is an “increasingly challenged environment”. Last year it saw a newsroom walkout in protest at the laying off of dozens of copy editors, a process gleefully described as a “bloodbath” by the city’s Murdoch-owned tabloid, The New York Post.

When jobs are being cut it makes sense to find innovative ways to expand the newsroom without budget cuts elsewhere. In another partnership, the Times has teamed with Google to launch a children’s version of the paper’s The Daily audio show (the most popular podcast in the world) exclusively for the voice-activated Google Home platform.

While Tomich says that “this type of work applies really well to technology companies”, the funding of Surfacing by Mondelez, a food company, shows that these editorial partnerships are not restricted to brands that have products which can be used in journalism.

'Our journalists aren’t repping their crackers'

Describing the process by which Surfacing came about, Tomich emphasises that partners have no influence over the content the newsroom produces. “Church and state (the traditional divide between a publisher’s editorial and commercial departments) will be as firm as ever and our journalism will remain objective and we are never going to do anything that our subscribers don’t love.”

Ideas for these special projects must always come from the newsroom and not “downstream” from a brief from a prospective client, he says. The key decision maker is Monica Drake, Assistant Managing Editor. “Monica’s role is to figure out where the journalistic need is and then we will go to market to find the right partners. It needs to come from the newsroom versus saying this is a commercial opportunity, so let’s invest.”

Drake identified a need for the Times “to unearth a new type of coverage focusing on subcultures” using quick videos and exploiting social media, Tomich says. Mondelez, meanwhile, wanted a way to provide “authentic value” to the millennial demographic it was targeting. “We thought this can be the perfect marriage – a residency in the newsroom where we would bring three new journalists who might otherwise not have been employed and for a year have them cover subcultures and Mondelez would be the one who brought it to the world. It was a win-win,” he argues. “Mondelez wins because they rose above traditional marketing – which when targeting the young has the risk of being inauthentic – to do something very authentic. We are not distributing crackers, our journalists aren’t repping their crackers.”

The Mondelez and Véa crackers brands do not appear on the content. The relationship does include a separate series of films made for Mondelez by T Brand Studio, the Times’s branded content unit which Tomich launched earlier in his five-year career at the company.

There were 500 young journalists who applied to work on Surfacing. The three chosen residents include Stockholm-raised Malin Fezehai, whose photography of East African refugees in Israel saw her become the first photographer to win a World Press Photo award for a picture taken on an iPhone. Her colleagues are Walter Thompson-Hernandez, who created the popular “Blaxicans of LA” Instagram account, documenting the mixed Mexican-Africa-American community of which he is a part, and Stephen Hiltner, who previously made a name for himself covering middle America on a motorcycle (at the election he rode 2,500 miles through deep Trump-supporting country before he saw a single campaign sign for Hillary Clinton).

This approach to creating new openings for rising reporting talent has been well-received by America’s journalism schools and the paper is planning an event to celebrate the progress of the project, which Tomich says he would repeat “15 times over”, if possible.

Recently promoted to global head of advertising and marketing solutions, overseeing a team of 500, Tomich watches changes to the newsroom with the excitement that they will generate commercial opportunities. One example is Jessica Bennett’s recent appointment as the paper’s first gender editor, coinciding with the total audience skewing slightly female. Another is the hiring last year of Ellen Pollock and Rebecca Blumenstein to head up business coverage.

“There’s an area of opportunity for us, as competitors retreat, to become the essential daily business read,” says Tomich, and he claims that coverage of technology “is ours to own”.

He believes there is a “huge opportunity” for the newsroom to expand the way it does reporting with mobile devices. “We are reaching a point where you can do everything with a phone. I think there is something in there to find the right mobile partner to be able to create great mobile journalism.”

'The media business is beginning to make sense again'

Tomich came to London for a series of client meetings and to speak at Advertising Week Europe, where his theme was “Truth Funded by Subscribers and Advertisers”.

He tells The Drum that he has come into his new enhanced role at the Times at a moment when “the media business is beginning to make sense again” after a decade of confusion. There is wider recognition of the value of quality journalism, he says. “There’s a lot more scrutiny on the (social) platforms and people care about sources of content. There’s the fake news discussion which is positive. People care about journalism again, the news is in the news, which is really exciting.”

But while he argues that “our brand is very hot right now” he also admits that, faced with “a digital ad market which isn’t growing”, it is “a battle every day to grow a business of our size”.

His message includes a prophecy that the publishing industry is set to shrink, having realised too late that strong consumer relationships with readers are more valuable than click-based advertising. “Publishing needs to return to being a relationship business,” he says.

He has previously suggested that the Times can operate more like a media agency in servicing commercial clients, but he refines that argument now, rejecting the bold claims embraced by some news companies that they can simultaneously operate as publishers, tech platforms and media consultancies. “We are not a technology company and no publisher is. If you are, you’re going up with giants like Adobe, Facebook, Google, Amazon. Good luck to you! I don’t want to be in a business that we can’t win.” The big platforms, he says, will “own” targeted advertising because of their scale but certain publishers can win out by providing insights into their uniquely valuable audiences.

“We are gathering the world’s most influential people, who come to us day in and day out,” he says. “We would argue that within the world of journalism we are the strongest consumer brand in the world. We have the largest subscription base out of any news outlet, as a brand itself we are of the strongest –if not the strongest. So let’s take all the things that have made us become a great brand ourselves and share them with marketers and help them do the same.”

While the New York Times has rivals (he lists the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times in business, the Washington Post in American politics, Vogue in fashion, and CNN on international news), no one competes across all its territories. “There is no publisher that has the scale that we do and the authority to play in so many different places.” It is “in a league of our own”, he argues, a news provider so prestigious that it can enjoy commercial relationships available to none of its competitors.

So as it develops new editorial products, ideas and experiences (it covered the recent Winter Olympics in augmented reality to explore the dynamics of elite skaters and snowboarders), it has the potential to take those projects to a select group of maybe 25 commercial brands for possible financial support. “Ultimately you (as a commercial partner) have to have big budgets and be willing to invest a lot of time to get this right. Some of these conversations can last six-nine months but when you get it right it’s magic – the best kind of advertising in the world.”

Alas, such deals will not be available to news publishers with more limited reach, reputation and consumer relationships. Some of these outlets, he suggests, will be left to continue chasing banner ad revenue and some will inevitably perish. “There’s going to be fewer publishers in the future – there’s too many right now – and those (surviving) publishers will probably do less but better,” he says. “Because in a world where you are being evaluated, can you make something worth paying for? That’s a lot harder to do than just pumping out articles to get views on Facebook.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell